Sunday, May 10, 2009

On Craig Arnold

It is one thing, I think, to remember the long life. Robin Blaser's death, notwithstanding the grief and mourning his close friends are feeling now (his partner of many years immediately came to mind upon hearing of the news) is also a celebration. Nearly immediately we reflect in order to bring to the present the presence of Robin Blaser's work. What is poetry if not the active extension of our multiple I's, fractured witnesses of one large language-entagled captive audience meeting? The complex negotiation of histories and forces filtered through the lens of our conventions? We must think of each line, said Celan, as a final breath. Where "finality" for the page, is impossible. Where "exhaustion" of the page, unlike for the human(s) who left them to the constant present, is impossible. Where the notion of the last breath is a perpetual "as if," a citation of our actions simpliciter, and a transfiguration, the unwriting of the universal, the universal particular captured, as it were, then let go by this seemingly insignificant unit of measure. Where, not unlike Blanchot, whose personal proximity to death was, by the same logic of fascism, so similar, Celan's "final breath," like the "zero point," is not an end, not a period, not a quiet or a quietism. Where what is meant is that all things are urgent. That urgency needs replace nostalgia in any form, lest we fall into the easiest ways of thinking--valorizing, authorializing, making demands for History.

When I read Charles Bernstein's very quick note "Robin Blaser died this morning," followed by links to Blaser's work, essays written about it, poems responding to Blaser's poems, I thought to myself that this was right. This, coming from Charles, who, who, with Susan Bee, has gone through such dark times with the untimely death of Emma Bee Bernstein, the couple's daughter. The quick note was so pregnant with knowledge born of horror. At the the public memorial for Emma Bee Bernstein, herself a polymath of an artist, a young feminist whose writings I am now just coming to know and let become a part of me, there was an incredible sense of celebration - which is what Charles Bernstein and Susan Bee wanted. I could not help but also sense, however, the deep sense of shock, even months after Emma's death, that moved throughout the room, that permeated things, effecting especially those, unlike myself, who knew Emma. It was that feeling, the feeling that hid just beneath the celebration, that made me feel extremely out of place. That I had come upon a private moment, one whose duration was sustained by the shock of the sudden, whose duration was therefore as unpredictable as its origin.

It is quite another thing, therefore, viscerally, to be forced within minutes, to consider what a remembrance of a person in mid-stride should consist of. There are no rules for celebration in the quick leave. The unexpected disappearance is the horror of the law of the conservation of motion. One is stopped with such suddenness, such violence, that one's momentum takes up the space one should be occupying. The momentum is so great that it can be mistaken, from a distance, for the person who has stopped. One's shadow becomes a shadowlife, instantly. Though I do not know Craig Arnold personally, I know many people who do. And I know his poetry--enough to know other things, things that Craig Arnold wants us to know and know poetically.

The final lines of his latest blog post before signing off:

Crushed in the hands, the fresh leaves are sweet, slightly musky – not quite mint, not quite juniper. It is a clean, windswept smell, the smell of meadow, of England, of green, the smell of a road after rain. It is the smell of a world in which there is nothing rotten or putrid or sulfurous, a world in which all of those things have been rinsed away.

Before signing off and, so his family and close friends believe, exploring the mountains of a small island off Japan. The title of the post, a self-identified digression into the sense, indeed the music of Angelica, I read with fascination. Arnold, drawn routinely back to active volcanoes, identifies "sulfurous" with "the putrid." Nowhere can I imagine there being so much sulfur than at the mouths of certain volcanoes (not all), as gaseous bi-product of forces that are still, even empirically, misunderstood. I can't help but see this juxtaposition as Arnold seeing the urgency of noticing all things, acknowledging that in the putrid, the sulfurous, there too is something sublime, that the sublime is not always, cannot be ever, beautiful. Then, after exploring his blog (Volcano Pilgrim) a bit more, digging a little deeper, I find strands that, like his poetry, both explicates and complicates previous or later threads of thought. From his first entry:

“This is part of the sublime / From which we shrink,” says Wallace Stevens. He is thinking of Pompeii and Vesuvius, of cities and civilizations laid low by disaster, of the utter indifference of geology to humanity. The Volcano Pilgrim has dedicated the last three years to the belief that one need not shrink from the sublime. Nay, rather, one may seek it out, with a pack on your back and a stick in your hand, liberal applications of sunblock and when necessary a gas mask over your face.

The last line: "...liberal applications of sunblock and when necessary a gas mask over your face" might as well be applied to acts of resistance, to protest. I used to run civil disobedience training for organizers in New York City. "Liberal applications" of sunblock and gas mask reminders were par for the course. I think, though it is extremely rare, I did utter precisely that half a line in one of those trainings. Here again, the sublime as transcendent of beauty, its treatment via humor, brings all things, for an infinitesimal flash, into a particular orbit, only to just as quickly fly apart again. Throughout this writing, travelogue gives way to an ecopoetics, and History gives way to urgency without certainty, lyric without unitary being.

I write this now without knowing whether Craig Arnold is alive. He disappeared one day while exploring a volcano. This was in late April when his friends and family sent out a desperate call, forwarded widely by Bruce Covey, to telephone our congress persons and demand that they pressure the Japanese government to continue to search for Arnold. At this time in late April, the Japanese government had declared Arnold "presumed dead," and called of their official search. Since then The Poetry Foundation and other organizations, led by family and friends, have collected funds to continue a volunteer search of the island, in order to recover Craig Arnold.

I write this, in part, because I did not call. I did nothing but write this. I have yet to call. I received a plea for help from a stranger and posted it to my blog. Was this a gesture to make me feel as though I had done something? I think it was.

"There is a psychology of fatalism that sets in," my partner said when we sat down for dinner the other night. Discussing why I have done nothing, whether writing on this when I could be calling right now was disgusting. She thought that it was not, not anyhow entirely disgusting, and though I take her point, I also think that there is something more to why we do not do things, in Kant's sense of the term, out of duty. Why we rather do what we desire to do - which is often called "good work" by churches and synagogues and other places built to house excuses. "Nothing more can be accomplished" or "I won't make a difference" are the same sort of refrains as "He's going to win anyway, so why campaign?" and "They're doing just fine, they don't need me." I suppose that when we say these things, or at least when I do, I am failing to meet the challenge of urgency that Celan writes of, or Blanchot - in fact a challenge that is much older than either of them, one that is Talmudic, at least. If all things are urgent, then one must act accordingly. That which must be factored in shifts from one's physical or emotional proximity to the action, to whether one is able. I think I have shrunken again from the sublime, turned from that to panic flight. Which is to remind me that to shrink from the sublime is not the default supposition of poets, i.e., that Stevens here is capturing the magnitude of a universe, the shift in perspective, sense of self-stability one plums at meeting the sublime. No, there is in the word itself the Kantian connection to the moral. Had Stevens not recognized this, he would have instead wrote "This is part of the sublime/at which we shrink." Not "from." That small word "from," the enfeebling retreat, were it to be replaced with "at," which is to metaphysical-ize the sublime, to strip it of its moral hinge, I sense that in this case Arnold wouldn't have thought once about carrying it with him from volcano to volcano--it would have smacked of so much world-worship rather than action (not to mention it ruining sound of the line).

I can only wonder right now, late at night, who has called on behalf of Arnold and his friends and family? Certainly, in this instance, celebration must wait, regardless of the probability that action will change outcome.

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